The Collector

What do Armando Valladares, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Miriam Alonso, Xavier Suarez, Alex Penelas, Steve Clark, and the Miami Herald editorial board have in common? They're just a few of the big names enlisted by accused embezzler Roberto Polo in his fight to a

The allegations, a sharp contrast to the careful arguments of Polo's own lawyer, go on and on.

For instance, he maintains that the New York judge entered a default judgment against him solely because he was imprisoned in Italy at the time. But he never mentions the letter written to him by his former lawyer, Alvin Hellerstein, who advised: "If you defend the civil lawsuits, you will be called upon to answer allegations [and] to testify in depositions and produce documents which...may tend to incriminate you. On the basis of the information you gave me, it is not likely that your position will prevail."

Addressing his luxurious lifestyle, Polo concedes: "I was managing $120 million and making a lot of money and I think I'm allowed to have a good time."

Last comes Polo's claim that he has been maligned in the press. "For five years I didn't talk. It was only the Mexicans talking," he says, even though he not only dispersed press releases from his Italian prison cell, but granted interviews while an international fugitive. He allows that the media have been more on-target recently, but he is still pushing for the Herald to publish a "serious" investigation of his case. "It hasn't been for lack of materials," he proclaims. "I mean, I've talked to half of the Herald.

I've spent weeks and weeks and weeks, sometimes hours on the phone with staff at the Herald. I interviewed with Ram centsn Maestre many, many times and sent him tons of material."

This assertion is punctuated by a rap at the door. Ever the polished host, Polo excuses himself and steps outside to greet his unexpected guests, a television crew from Telemundo. After conferring for a few moments, a producer is dispatched to fetch sodas, the reporter seats herself in the inmate visiting hall, and Polo reappears. His thin lips working faster now, he hammers at the larger implications. "Basically, this could happen to anybody," he declares. "Here I am, an American, I've done so much for my country, done so much for France and Italy. Even at the time I was busiest, I gave to charity. Even if I would take a Concorde from Europe in the morning, I would still find time to go to Casita Maria and the other Hispanic charities and take twenty, thirty kids to a movie or museum. That's the kind of person I am."

He peers out the window at the neatly kept grounds. Beyond these lie the moonscape of South Dade, hurricane wreckage still lining the roads, water tanks crushed like fallen souffles. Farther off, his friends and family. And beyond that, an impossible distance, the past he once lived. Perfect. "You know what many of us here say? We say, 'What's the difference between this and Cuba? What's the difference between this and Nazi Germany?'"

The TV producer taps on the door. Polo leaps up, whispers a few mollifying words. Time for one more question. If Roberto Polo is so obviously innocent, why doesn't he return to Switzerland, rebuff his accusers, and make his way in the world as a free man?

"The problem is falling into the hands of the Swiss magistrate who lied to obtain the extradition," he explains gravely. "He wants me trapped over there, out of the way."

Another knock. Polo must go. Of course, he will be available to answer all additional questions. But for the time being, Telemundo beckoned. The Spanish-language network is preparing to beam a special report about the Polo tragedy to affiliates around the Americas, to be followed by a network editorial denouncing his persecution.

Polo opens the door and scans the visiting room for his reporter. A portly man in a navy blue suit bumbles up. "Excuse me," says the man, who was obviously an attorney. "I've got to meet with my client." He gestures toward the room Polo is guarding, a room intended for attorney/client meetings.

"Oh, no, you don't understand," Polo explains. "I have another meeting." He smooths over the faux pas with a wave of his legal folder, ushers the reporter past the interloper, and shuts the door.

The true believers were gathered in the hallway, dress shoes clicking on buffed linoleum. At a few minutes before nine this past Wednesday, they began jostling into the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, who was presiding over the appeal of Magistrate Bandstra's extradition order.

Polo stood at the defendant's table, in a blue sweater and jeans. With winks and winsome smiles he gave what thanks he could to his supporters, who packed seven rows and overflowed into the foyer.

As Moreno settled on his wooden perch, defense attorney Ed Shohat rose to argue that the case be returned to Bandstra, who had disregarded evidence of the Swiss magistrate's fallibility. The employees from whom he never took depositions. The absence of bank records. The powers of attorney. Shohat threw his words like skipping rocks, each leaving a ripple of doubt even as the next landed. He wooed the judge with blown-up copies of his best exhibits.

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